by Orlando Figes
Figes begins his coverage of the revolutionary era in 1891 and ends it with the death of Lenin in 1924. If the latter is a logical or at least an understandable choice for an end date, the former might seem fuzzier for a start date. Why 1891? As it turns out, 1891 was the year of a great famine that eventually "spread to seventeen provinces, from the Ural mountains to the Black Sea, an area double the size of France with a population of thirty-six million people" (157). A cholera and typhus epidemic struck next, taking the lives of a half a million people over the course of the next year. Although individuals like Dr. Chekhov and Count Tolstoy stepped in to lend medical aid and food relief to their suffering countrymen, the government response was underwhelming to say the least; measures such as prohibiting newspapers from mentioning the famine and delaying a ban on the exportation of wheat while millions went starving naturally had the effect of politicizing and radicalizing large swaths of the populace. Unfortunately, Russian religious leaders also made grave missteps of their own for, as it's explained in a footnote, "the Orthodox Church, which had recently excommunicated Tolstoy, forbade the starving peasants to accept food from his relief campaign" (160). So much for God and country. The upshot of all this trauma? According to Figes, "The conflict between the population and the regime had been set in motion - and there was now no turning back. In the words of Lydia Dan, the famine had been a vital landmark in the history of the revolution because it had shown to the youth of her generation 'that the Russian system was completely bankrupt. It felt as though Russia was on the brink of something'" (162).
Whether you were a Menshevik like Dan or somebody of a different political persuasion altogether hoping Russia was on the brink of something big along the lines of some much needed change, it's of course a long way from 1891 to 1917, which begs the question: what other sorts of crises to authority occurred during this time? Or perhaps a better question: what crises to authority didn't occur during this time? Although I won't take the time to try to summarize A People's Tragedy's 150-page response to these questions in any sort of depth, suffice it to say that a misguided war with Japan in 1904-05, ongoing labor strikes and protests, the so-called Revolution of 1905--itself brought about in part by the massacre of unarmed demonstrators by Tsar Nicholas II's soldiers, and a traumatic experience throughout the early years of World War I headed a roll call of reasons for Russians to lose faith in the regime's ability to conduct any essential business beyond champagne parties and mismanagement of the country's affairs. Reform? According to Figes, "If there is a single, repetitive theme in the history of Russia during the last twenty years of the old regime, it is that of the need for reform and the failure of successive governments to achieve it in the face of the Tsar's opposition" (171). And: "The whole period of Russian political history between the two revolutions of 1905 and February 1917 could be characterized as a battle between the royalist and parliamentary forces. To begin with, when the country was still emerging from the revolutionary crisis, the court was forced to concede ground to the Duma. But as the memory of 1905 passed, it tried to roll back its powers and restore the old autocracy" (214). In hindsight, Gorky, writing to his wife after the events of Bloody Sunday in 1905, might have been the most prescient in terms of putting his finger on the mood of the country: "Only blood can change the colour of history" (179).
On that note, I'd like to conclude with two style points for anybody considering reading this book at some point. While Figes will likely make you laugh at the occasional Tacitean digs he takes at his historical cast of characters--Alexander Kerensky, a future rival of Lenin's, for example, here receives the double indignity of being mocked by references to his early theatrical interests ("Kerensky never made it into the theatre, although as an actor on the revolutionary stage he was to prove as self-dramatizing as any provincial thespian") and even for switching his university major from history and philology to law ("This too set the pattern for the future: changing from history to law is, obviously, the move of a careerist") all within the space of three sentences! (166)--his analysis skills are Tacitean level as well. The following passage from pages 188-189, for example, is an absolutely top notch meditation on the nature of crowd violence in the revolution, and so I'll include the paragraph in its entirety so you can have an unmediated version of Figes for a change:
Because of the preoccupation of many historians with the organized labour movement - and their seduction by the Soviet myth of the armed workers on the barricades - the role of this everyday criminal violence in the revolutionary crowd has been either ignored or, even more misleadingly, confused with the violence of industrial war. Yet the closer one looks at the crowds on the streets, the harder it becomes to distinguish clearly between organized forms of protest - the marching workers with banners and songs - and criminal acts of looting and violence. The one could easily - and often did - break down into the other. It was not just a question of 'hooligans' or criminals joining in labour protests or taking advantage of the chaos they created to vandalize, assault and loot. Such acts seem to have been an integral element of labour militancy, a means of asserting the power of the plebeian crowd and of despoiling and destroying symbols of wealth and privilege. What the frightened middle classes termed 'hooliganism' - mob attacks on the well-to-do and on figures of authority, looting and vandalism, drunken brawling and rioting - could just as easily be categorized as 'revolutionary acts'. And in part that is what they were: the revolutionary violence of 1905-17 was expressed in just these sorts of act. It was driven by the same feelings of hatred for the rich and all figures of authority, by the same desire of the poor and the powerless to assert themselves and claim the streets as their own. From the perspective of the propertied there was very little to distinguish between the 'rough' and 'rude' behaviour of the 'hooligans' - their cocky way of dressing, their drunkenness and vulgar language, their 'insolence' and 'licence' - and the behaviour of the revolutionary crowd. Even the most organized labour protests could, on the slightest provocation, break down into violence and looting. It was to become a major problem for all the revolutionary parties, the Bolsheviks in particular, who tried to use the violence of the crowd for their own political ends. Such violence was a double-edged sword and could lead to anarchy rather than controlled revolutionary force. This was the lesson the Bolsheviks would learn during the July and October Days in 1917 - outbursts of violence which were far removed from the Soviet image of heroic proletarian power.